Wells Cathedral Pilgrimage in a Day
Linear route from Glastonbury Abbey to Wells Cathedral (or vice versa) – 1 day walking, 2 days in total for seeing all holy places at either end, in both Glastonbury and Wells – 12 miles – green line on Google Map, and pink line for the St Bride’s Mound extension.
Circular route from St Cuthbert’s Church – Croscombe – Wells Cathedral – 1 day, 7 miles – burgundy line on Google Map below. For photos of this route, see Glastonbury Water Way.
These routes were devised by Chris Sheldrake, and Guy Hayward, co-author of ‘Britain’s Pilgrim Places‘.
The wonderfully researched description below of the Wells to Glastonbury route results from a collaboration between BPT’s Guy Hayward and Prof Kathryn Barush (see her bio at bottom).
This pilgrimage reveals the richness of British culture in a place of deep mystery. We will encounter Green Men (and a lady), healing waters, fire-breathing dragons, and angels in high places. Follow the links for insider looks at artefacts, songs, and even a 360 tour.
The route from Wells to Glastonbury centers around two things: healing water, and the rich overlay of traditions and stories. It is an excellent opportunity for inter-religious dialogue as we introduce spaces of encounter that are layered with significance that cross and transcend religious, cultural, and even temporal boundaries.
To get to the Abbey, pass through the medieval portal on Magdalen Street. You will find yourself in the heart of a very sacred landscape which has fired the imagination for centuries. Pause for a moment and feel the presence of the past. Some eighteenth-century artists who came to sketch the ruins spoke of the stones themselves being imbued with the voices of the monks who chanted there long ago…can you hear them?
According to legend, Saint Joseph of Arimathea, who gave up his tomb for Jesus, travelled first to Gaul and then Britain in the year 63 AD. In one version of the story, he was accompanied by the child Christ, who built a model church out of twigs (described in a letter from St Augustine of Canterbury to Pope Gregory), and in another Joseph brought the Gospel and the Holy Grail to the island after the Resurrection, to which he bore witness. You can see an illuminated miniature of Joseph collecting some of Christ’s blood in the chalice used at the last supper in this L’estoire del Saint Graal (c. 1316) now at the British Library.
William Blake famously recalled this in his preface to his illuminated book Milton, in a lyric later set to music by Sir Hubert Parry and now known as ‘Jerusalem’, which asks, ‘And did those feet in ancient time / Walk upon Englands mountains green?’ Lesser known than the famous hymn are Blake’s other depictions of the subject, for example this 1809 engraving of Joseph, the sacred artist blazing a pilgrim trail to Avalon (note the ‘Joseph of Arimathea among The Rocks of Albion’ graffito inscribed on the face of the rock itself). The landscape of Glastonbury around the Tor is believed to have been surrounded by the sea, which is reflected in Blake’s pictorial setting. He also created this watercolor of Joseph preaching to the inhabitants of Britain under the thorn tree that sprung from his staff, which we will visit next.
But before we do so, the Abbey has also had other illustrious visitors; for example, Saint Patrick, who was said to have visited in 443. St. Dunstan was appointed Abbot around 943 and reformed the monastic life there. He illuminated manuscripts and played harp within the walls of his 5-foot cell against the old Church of St. Mary. He is said to have been tempted by the devil there and resisted by grabbing his nose with a pair of blazing hot pinchers.
Before leaving, be sure to visit the site of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere’s tomb, said to have been discovered in a hollow oak between two great stone pyramids with a leaden plaque which stated, ‘Here lies buried the glorious king Arthur and Guinevere his second wife in the Isle of Avalon.’
The Goddess Temple is the first formally-recognized space ‘dedicated to the worship of the indigenous British Goddess in all of Her many manifesting forms’ for perhaps 1,500 years, and maybe even ever, to the knowledge of the founders. You can listen to, or read, an interview with co-founder Kathy Jones and author of Spinning the Wheel of Ana here and our virtual pilgrims can explore recorded videos, events, and music here. Not an easy space for some, for others it will feel just right. If you don’t know what to do, or how to behave, just light a candle and be still!
St. Margaret’s Chapel
A place of immense peace. Spend 20 minutes in calm still presence. Virtual pilgrims can view the space here, including their two new icons of St. Margaret and St. Mary Magdalene.
Holy Thorn/Wearyall Hill
When Joseph of Arimathea arrived in Glastonbury, he thrust his pilgrim staff into the ground and said to his companions, ‘friends, we are weary all’ (hence the name Wirral, or Wearyall Hill). This beautifully-illuminated manuscript page from the first quarter of the 14th century shows Joseph unfurling his garment across the sea (note the fish!) so that pilgrims ‘pure of heart’ might follow him. The staff , which is said to have been made from the wood of the cross, took root and grew into a thorn tree.
Until recently, the tree (confirmed by experts to be a Levantine hawthorn called Crataegus Monogya Praecox) bloomed in May and, more unusually, again around Christmas. As an old local ballad goes, ‘The staff het budded and het grew, An at Chursnas bloomed the whole day droo; An still het blooms Chursmas bright. But best that zay at dark midnight’. For the past hundred years or more, a sprig was cut from the tree to send to the Queen for her table. The tree was hacked down by vandals in 2010 but a new sapling has been planted nearby.
This area known as The Brides would have been the western gateway to the Isle of Avalon. Legend has it that King Arthur had a vision of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus here, leading him to change his coat of arms. Archaeological investigations suggest that the site has been used since prehistoric times, and C5th skeletons have also been found. Evidence shows that there was a small chapel and cemetery here from Anglo-Saxon times which was in use until the Reformation (and a healing well nearby). William of Malmesbury (1135) and John of Glastonbury (1340) state that St Bridget visited Glastonbury in 488 and spent time here at Beckery at the chapel, then dedicated to Mary Magdalene, later Bridget. Bridget was often associated with Bride’s, hence why there is a pilgrimage from Chalice Well here every 1st February (St Bride’s Day/Imbolc). Eventually Bridget’s relics were later on display here and visited by pilgrims. John also tells of a circular hole in the chapel wall that pilgrims crawled through for purification.
(With thanks for this text and research due to the Friends of Bride’s Mound who still need help to repay their loan acquired to buy the Ridge fields in order to protect this sacred space from development).
St. John’s Church
The dedication of this church, with a venerable history stretching back as far as c. 950, is St. John the Baptist (feast day 24th June), who baptized Jesus Christ in the river Jordan. One of the most famous symbols of baptism and also pilgrimage is the scallop shell, usually shown on images of St. James as a pilgrim, and often attached to bags and hats (even today) to indicate that a walker is on a religious pilgrimage rather than a ramble in the woods. The scallop can also be found in church iconography and baptismal fonts as a symbol of baptism and, moreover, spiritual renewal – see if you can find one!
Pause for a moment here at this place dedicated to St. John and remember his pilgrim journey; ‘the voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’ Speaking of pilgrim paths, take a moment to walk the seven-circuit Glastonbury Tercentenniel Labyrinth in the garden.
Many say that they feel a sense of renewal and peace as they pause in the center before winding back outward. There are four carvings for reflection at each of the sharp turns: the Virgin Mary and five-petalled rose, St. Bridget and Celtic harp, St. Dunstan and his harp (mentioned above, remember his cell at the Abbey?) and Joseph of Arimathea and the Holy Thorn.
…Won’t you meet me down by Avalon
In the summertime in England
In the Church of St. John…
Did you ever hear about Jesus walkin’
Jesus walkin’ down by Avalon?
Van Morrison, Summertime in England (live),
Chalice Well & Gardens
Enter via the yew guardian trees. Then paddle in the spring in the next compartment of these peaceful gardens. Drink from the lion fountain in the next compartment. Then be still and silent by the Chalice Well and acknowledge the nearby well in the floor as well as the main one.
The well is attached to the story of Joseph of Arimathea, who was said to have hidden the holy grail there, tinging the water with the blood of Christ. This is in line with other medieval tales of healing relic water containing drops of holy blood, including the famous ‘Thomas Becket water’ of Canterbury collected by pilgrims in leaden phials. The water truly is red due to its very high iron (chalybeate) content. Some of the curative powers of the well were recorded by Matthew Chancellor of North Wootton in 1751, who suffered from asthma.
The Well has long been a place of inclusivity and in 2012, the Chalice Well Trust acknowledged seventy faith groups, welcoming them to a celebration of religious diversity. This is in line with the life’s work of the founder, visionary Major Wellesley Tudor Pole. In his Silent Road, he gives clear instructions for a pilgrimage in place using the ‘faculty of the creative imagination’.
The White Spring
So-called due to its calcite content, just as the red spring is coloured by iron. A most elemental experience to be had here. Be blasted by the white noise of the water gushing forth crashing on the stones and immersion pools. Pilgrims are encouraged to bathe in the water or offer a tune (though nothing too loud as the old Victorian well-house is an echo chamber). There is a seasonal altar where pilgrims are welcome to make an offering. The Keepers of the White Spring have some guidelines for using the space here, as well as descriptions of the shrines for those on virtual pilgrimage.
Check the opening times because this is essential. 1.30-4.30pm each day apart from Wednesdays and Thursdays. If you miss the opening hours, there’s access to the water through a pipe in the wall.
A labyrinth is impressed in the hillside of the Tor for circumambulation, which takes about 5 hours (we recommend finding a guide to help), or you can walk up the Pilgrim’s Path along the spine. Some say that the lighting and colours change as the pilgrim progresses up the hill, with the grass and sky becoming more vibrant and intense. The strange, conical form, often rising like an island on a foggy day, has been the subject of much speculation and inquiry. Is it a chamber to another world? A fairy fort? Note the pairing of carvings above the doorway; you can see St. Michael to the left and St. Brigid milking a cow on the right.
St Michael’s Tower, atop the tor, is open to the sky. It forms a spine of towers dedicated to St. Michael (who, being an angel, loves high places) all the way to Mont St. Michel in France. The nearest to Glastonbury is Burrowbridge Mound, and St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall is also along this line. On his feast day, torches were lit from shrine to shrine.
One day, standing in the tower, I had a hunch that it was the same arch looking out over the landscape that William Blake depicted in his book, Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion (1804 – c. 1820), which has long-been compared to the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages, in both form and function. The frontispiece depicts a pilgrim stepping beyond the page into the dark expanse of the book itself, an illusion created through a masterful application of paint. Around the borders are broken chains (Blake invited his readers to cast off their “mind-forg’d manacles” and enter, as pilgrim explorers, the recesses of their own imaginations).
Late in his life a group of young artists called the Shoreham Ancients befriended Blake. One of them, Samuel Palmer, created this etching (c/o the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC) inspired by Milton’s Il Penseroso, ‘Or let my lamp at midnight hour, / Be seen in some high lonely tow’r, / Where I may oft out-watch the Bear, / With thrice-great Hermes, or unsphere’. The tower is reminiscent of the one on the Tor, and if you look closely you can see pilgrims making their way to the top. The roofless-ness also makes it perfect for stargazing!
The tower itself is an ancient symbol of Divine Wisdom and thoughtful isolation. There are medieval resonances in the story of St Barbara imprisoned in a tower where she was converted to Christianity by inspiration. In Milton’s day, the tower was used in emblem books to signify light and vigilance in the face of danger. A 1632 woodcut shows a pilgrim embarking on a difficult and labyrinthine route to a tower (on which sits an angel, helping them along) with a quotation from Psalm 1119.5, ‘Oh that my ways were directed to keep thy statutes’.
The Lonely Tower became an important symbol in Yeats’s poem, the Phases of the Moon. He writes of:
…the candle light
From the far tower where Milton’s Platonist
Sat late, or Shelley’s visionary prince:
The lonely light that Samuel Palmer engraved,
An image of mysterious wisdom won by toil.
You may feel a lot of emotion coming to this place. To many, it feels like coming home. To others, it feels like a place of the heart. Cast your eye over the vast flat landscape of the Somerset Levels, prone to flooding, and Glastonbury town.
Gog and Magog
Two biblical beings – an individual and its land – also giants who first defeated a Trojan King. Guardian statues of Gog and Magog can be found at the Guildhall London and hills in Cambridgeshire. But here they are old, old oak trees – male and female – that may have marked the beginning of the oak tree procession to the Tor. Now they are burnt from the inside and have a petrified quality, but hugely majestic in their presence.
St. Nicholas’s Church, West Pennard
The pilgrim entering the west door is welcomed by three angels on the frieze above; see how many winged messengers you can spot here! The chapel was dedicated to St. Nicholas by 1210. There are some fine architectural features within, including a barrel-vaulted nave roof and a 16th-century parapet of pierced quatrefoils and tablet flowers. On your way out, pause to look at the cross in the churchyard with its carvings of the emblems of the crucifixion, and see if you can find the initials of Abbott Richard Bere (1493-1524).
St. Peter’s, North Wootton
As you approach North Wootton, have a look at the funky earthworks, evidence of prehistory.
The church is apparently on the Michael and Mary ley line, an energy current line from Cornwall. Are these the telluric currents that science has discovered? Sit in silence and feel the peace, or, like British landscape painter Luke Piper, see if you feel compelled to create an artwork.
The building itself probably dates from the 12th century, with a nave that was remodelled in the mid-to-late 14th century (with the addition of windows which were inserted on the south porch), and underwent an extensive eighteenth-century re-modelling.
Before you leave, glance at the wonky leaning Saxon font, and maybe touch it too…!
Worminster Down Hillfort
Allegedly the home of a dragon! According to the story the dragon was dispatched by the Bishop of Wells, but with his dying breath the dragon cursed the surrounding area by saying he will come back every 50 years and, if not slain, would devour a maiden. So every so often the locals parade a dragon through the streets and enact a slaying for the good of all… There is a Worminster ‘Worm’ (Dragon) in a floor tile of the Bishop’s Palace of Wells, and a figure of a monk slaying a dragon in the stair of the Chapter House. Remember this for when you arrive there.
View of Beginning and End
See Glastonbury Tor and Wells Cathedral from here, and St Cuthbert’s Church. We heard the lines from TS Eliot’s poem ‘Little Gidding’ from Four Quartets in our labyrinth meditation at St. John’s earlier on our pilgrimage. Perhaps we can remember them again as we near journey’s end.
As you read this excerpt from the poem, recall the fire of the dragons that we encountered at Worminster and Wells, the oft-hidden water that brought renewal and healing (and will do at Wells, up next), the references to Avalon (Welsh for Ynys Afallon, or the Island of Apples), the portal in St. Michael’s tower. Soon we will end our journey in the midst of the roses of the Bishop’s Palace gardens.
‘What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always–
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.’
Holy Wells of Wells
St Andrew’s Well, the holy pond around which all of Wells was built, including the cathedral, is only accessible via the Bishop’s Palace Gardens. An underground river runs under, which might explain why there is so much water on display, feeding this magnificent garden full of flowers. Put your hand in and feel connected to this vast body of water. A plaque nearby connects the water, which was used in liturgies at Wells, to the ‘river of life’ in the Book of Revelations: ‘Then the angel showed me the river of life, rising from the throne of God and flowing crystal clear. Down the middle of the city street, on either side of the river, were the trees of life, the leaves of which are for the healing of the nation’.
Thomas Ken (or Kenn), who held the Bishopric from 1685-1690 is said to have composed the lyrics to two hymns in the grotto on the terrace of the Palace Gardens. They are perfect for pilgrimage, meant to be sung to mark the opening and the closing of the day: ‘Awake, my soul, and with the sun,’ and ‘Glory to Thee, my God, this night.’ They are linked here with musical settings by François Bartholemon and Thomas Tallis.
Enter at the West Door after marvelling at the extraordinary West Front on the outside, with 300 saints carved into the stone face. As you walk west to East toward the altar, you are on a pilgrimage within a pilgrimage, progressing East, toward Jerusalem. There is also a processional path behind the altar towards the Lady Chapel. Our virtual pilgrims can view the chapel itself in 360 degrees here.
The Nave awaits you and its amazing scissor arches. Watch the oldest clock face in the world with its revolving jousting knights and Quarter Jack marking the hours with his banging heels. It also marks the current phase of the moon (remember our Yeats poem fragment earlier about the tower).
The Chapter House is a place to lie down and be awestruck by the beauty of the circular ceiling vaulting, perhaps whisper to your companion across this ancient speaking room. Make sure you acknowledge the incredible dedication evidenced by the Needlepoint Lace opposite the Lady Chapel which took over 8000 hours to make. The Jesse Window in the Quire is a green tree-like wonder. Then wander outside to the Cloisters for the dipping hole in the middle, with steps leading down to it, where you can see and hear the underground river through the railings around the tombs. And then head to the Camery Garden to look through the squint revealing St Andrew’s Well.
If you have a toothache, you’ve come to the right place. For centuries pilgrims have been flocking to the tomb of William Bytton, Bishop from 1267-1274…and what’s in a name? In the twentieth century, the superintendent of restoration removed the stone lid of his tomb and was surprised to find a perfect set of teeth ‘of which any lady might have been proud, in the jaw of the bishop’. Even more surprisingly, with the remains were an inscribed plate which testified his death in extreme old age. Look out, too, for the medieval capital showing a head with a toothache!
Look out for the several Green Men and the Green Lady of Wells. These ancient foliate heads were named by Lady Raglan a hundred years ago, but the iconography is much older, with foliate masks appearing in Roman art as early as the first century AD but growing in popularity in the second century. With their mischievous expressions they have been adopted as counter-cultural icons. They have come to represent rebirth and the renewal of spring time, and are associated with May morning festivals where human faces peep from beneath their leafy covers, parading as Jack-in-the-Green.
Whatever their origins and meanings, in this time of ecological crisis, these Green People do well to remind us of the spirit of nature, the importance of environmental stewardship and justice, and our relationship to the other-than-human. As the song Jack-in-the-Green by Jethro Tull imagines, there is stills some hope:
Jack, do you never sleep
does the green still run deep in your heart?
Or will these changing times,
keep us apart?
Well, I don’t think so
I saw some grass growing through the pavements today.
From Songs from the Wood, 1977.
St. Cuthbert’s Church
Look out for the tower on the horizon, emerging from the trees, which Simon Jenkins calls ‘the climactic example of the “vertical” group of Somerset towers, designed not as a stack of separate stages but as a soaring unity’. A remarkable collection of late medieval painted sculpture was rediscovered during renovations in 1840. They have been moved to safe storage to prevent fading and damage, so our virtual pilgrims and those on foot alike can take a closer look here.
The ceiling is a riot of sculpted, painted angels, rosettes, and symbols of heraldry restored in the sixties. Lie down in the nave and soak in the colour.
A perfectly intact medieval street where the choral lay clerks live. Virtual pilgrims can take a stroll here.
Although she has been on pilgrimages to Glastonbury in the past, Kathryn is guest-authoring this journey virtually and from afar; here are some California roses to stand in for the ones at the Bishop’s Palace Gardens!
Kathryn Barush is Assoc. Professor and Thomas E. Bertelsen Jr. Chair of Art History and Religion at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California and is the author of the monograph Art and the Sacred Journey in Britain, 1790-1850 (London: Routledge). She received a D.Phil. from Wadham College, University of Oxford in 2012 and has held positions as Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and as curatorial assistant at the Yale University Center for British Art. Shifting the focus to the present day, Dr. Barush’s current book project (Imaging Pilgrimage, Bloomsbury) explores the transfer of ‘spirit’ from sites to representations through a critical examination of contemporary art (including assemblages of souvenirs, built environments, and reconstructions of sacred sites) created after or during pilgrimages with the intent to engender the experience for others. She is also an avid walker and has led a group of graduate student pilgrims along the Camino Ignaciano in Spain. Find her on Twitter @pilgrim_travels